Title: Charlotte’s Web
Author: E. B. White
Publisher: Puffin Modern Classics (2010 ed)
First Published: 1952
Genre: Children’s fiction
This book is a beautiful story which creates a good introduction to children to themes such as friendship and death. Some children may be sensitive, but this story provides a positive way to introduce these ideas and discuss them – If your child is particularly sensitive I would suggest reading through it first, and then perhaps reading it together chapter by chapter.
The book has a wide range of characters including the humans and the animals on the farm which together create a unique community. The characters all share different examples of friendship.
- Fern, the human child who begins the story by saving the life of Wilbur the runty pig, gradually becomes a more passive character as she visits her friend on the farm as a spectator and then slowly moves on as she grows up and begins to take an interest in boys. She genuinely loves Wilbur, but they grow apart over time, and there is nothing wrong with that.
- Charlotte the spider is Wilbur’s closest friend and companion throughout the story, and she does things for him simply “because she likes him”. She saves his life by weaving complimentary messages into her webs above the pigsty, such as “SOME PIG”, “TERRIFIC”, “RADIANT”, and “HUMBLE”. The humans take notice and are amazed, accrediting it to a miracle and consequentially decide not to kill Wilbur in the winter. Everyone praises Wilbur, but – with a couple of exceptions – they all fail to take notice of Charlotte. The friendship between spider and pig remains one of service and love, as Charlotte does not care for attention, and Wilbur remains humble and grateful despite his fame. On Charlotte’s death in the winter Wilbur is understandably upset, but takes care of Charlotte’s egg sac, and in turn gains new friends each year with the subsequent generations of spiders.
- Templeton the rat is often criticized by the other animals as untrustworthy and self serving – which to a certain extent is true – but he also fulfills several roles in the story where he helps Wilbur and Charlotte. Near the end of the story, he is given a monologue in which he complains about how he has done so many helpful things, and yet he is never thanked or appreciated. This gives insight into the reasons why he is the way he is, and challenges the reader to look at his character from another angle.
- The goose advises Wilbur to break out of his enclosure, stating “An hour of freedom is worth a barrel of slops.” Wilbur obeys, but finds he prefers his pen to freedom, concluding “I’m really too young to go out in the world alone.” The goose gives him advice, thinking it is within his best interest, but as Wilbur discovers, they have very different notions of comfort and value. This is a good segue into discussing peer pressure with children.
- The lamb, far from friendly, mocks Wilbur and even calls him “less than nothing”. Although this is both confusing and discouraging, he takes comfort instead in his friendship with Charlotte. He acknowledges the lambs insult, but rather than ignoring it or trying to retaliate (which are often seen as the only two responses), he instead moves on and concludes that it doesn’t matter. An inevitable part of childhood is interacting with mean children or bullies, and this part of the story can act as a positive way to bring it up.
- Wilbur’s many human fans come and see him while he is famous, and while he appreciates the attention (as it is indeed saving his life) he doesn’t let the fame go to his head, instead putting value in his long term friends.
Charlotte’s death is a touching scene, and portrays death as a natural part of life. Her death, although sad, is not a negative experience as she leaves behind both a legacy in Wilbur, and her five hundred and fourteen children.
Charlotte’s Web is a very deep and insightful story, and most of all it feels real and authentic. It does not patronize children, but gives them a story which could be understood and engaged with on multiple levels. It boasts a wide vocabulary, incorporating words such as “Salutations” into the body of the text, but does not come across as dry or “educational”. It promotes wisdom over knowledge, and has many elements of a fable.
Overall, this is a very good book for children, and I would highly recommend it.